Life, for all of us, is now lived in the looming shadow of death
Death is no more thoughts of the neigbourhood graveyard.
It is no more a story of the relative who died of an ailment. You wake up at dawn every day, quite surprised that you are alive even as so many others are dying around you and away from you. You pray in that early hour of the day, as the cold winds rush through the trees bereft of leaves in a fresh new winter, for everyone across the globe to remain safe.
On your quivering lips, in your waking hours as in your moments of slumber, it is God you remember. Faith sustains you, revives that confidence in you about life returning to what it used to be before you went into lockdown. Hope does not spring eternal anymore, but it does flicker.
Life, in these parlous times, is not that moment when the heart in you informs you that death will come when it will come. Something has changed, something has snapped in the soul. Life, for all of us, is now lived in the looming shadow of death. Not surrounded by death, not in the vicinity of death. Life is trapped in death. And death is a straitjacket it cannot get out of. You stand at that window. No, you are not eager to live on, for you have perhaps been philosophically made ready to acknowledge the laws of mortality over the years. But what worries you is the sheer helplessness you feel and the pain you share with everyone else on this planet.
The airports are barren land; all those aircraft are parked all across the runways. You think of home, home where you need to go. You miss those nieces and nephews, need to hug them, to tell them you are back. You remember the way they smile, the sparkle in their eyes every time they see you. The old tactility is what you miss. You worry about the siblings thousands of miles away, praying that the coronavirus does not make a mess of their lives.
You turn away from the window, you turn away from that view of a deserted, desolate street and watch your slowly waking spouse. Would she like some tea? You move into the kitchen, rather startled that your world, as has the world of others, has in these past many months become so worryingly circumscribed. You walk to the kitchen, to the living room, to your study.
And that is the limit to your freedom. The old independence, that jauntiness which not so long ago propelled you into jumping on to a bus and striding purposefully into a train and going about the city, is a story which defined you aeons ago. The bookshops are closed; the charity shops nearby, where good used books were always ready to leap at you, do not have their doors open any more.
The government says non-essential things can well stay away from you. It has your good at heart when it tells you, ever so subtly, that a trip to buy a book could well be the beginning of a journey to the grave. Suddenly you realize that those ancient graves are beginning to lose their appeal. It is your own grave you have now begun to think of. You do not know where that grave will be or when you will die. But you will die. And who says you are living anyway?
As you sip your tea, which is losing its steam in the cold, you jot down the names of all those men and women you met yesterday, people who do not live today. Life has ceased for them. Back home, and in this global village, it is those lengthening cemeteries which shape elegies with every new corpse of every individual you knew making its hurried way to burial, on the shoulders of men in death-resistant attire, men who do not have the luxury of relaxation.
They have other dead men to lower into their premature graves. You make a list of all the good souls claimed by the coronavirus, surprised at the rising numbers as you remember all those faces. So many good people, so many humble friends have gone that you might as well give up counting. And yet you count. You count because if you don’t, the heart in you will crack. You count because you need to cry, because the tears must flow.
It is a predator, this virus, that yet has not had its fill of grotesque killings. It strikes people down everywhere. It takes away jobs; it forces businesses to shutter. It causes violence in the household. It leaves the young struggling for a preservation of sanity. It is a curse which hangs low over us. It does not permit us to shake hands or give one another a hug.
We have forgotten to laugh. The old humour, the repartee and wit that marked our conversations in what now seems like centuries ago, we have locked away somewhere in the woodlands of the heart now overgrown with weeds. We have forgotten where we have kept the keys. Do we need the keys when the dusty path leads only to the valley of silence?
Chilly day gives way to freezing night. Outside that window, a three-quarter moon peers into the room. It has just welcomed an unmanned spacecraft from China. You try recalling the old cadences of poetry, of the light of the moon raising tiny diamonds in the ripples in your village pond. It was another day, another era.
Silence whispers around the pastoral home you miss. Not a leaf stirs. No starlight plays in the water. No, it is not the end of time, but in the mind a vast universe takes form and substance, lifeless and pointless in its ebony manifestation.
Somewhere in the ageing night, a family loses its way, perhaps its hold on the future.
The virus has turned its happy children into sudden orphans.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.